Guilt and Grief During the Holiday Season

I’ve been feeling a little distracted this holiday season.  Maybe a little stressed.  Maybe a little numb.  I’m not feeling it like I want to feel it – not the tingle I sometimes get when I hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing ‘Oh Holy Night’ or the warm and fuzzy feeling of snuggling under ten blankets to watch old Christmas specials. Am I feeling grinchy? Not exactly, but I’m not filled with Christmas cheer either. I’m just blah, and as we’ve explained in past posts, feeling nothing actually feels pretty bad.

Honestly, I feel really guilty about feeling blah this time of year. I feel bad that I haven’t lived every holiday moment to the fullest.  I feel sad that I let one of my favorite times of year pass me by. I feel worried that I’ve disappointed WYG’s grief friends by not being on top of my holiday grief support game. And, more than anything, I feel ashamed that I haven’t given my kids the best holiday season ever! Because every holiday season needs to be the best one ever!

Some of you may think this is crazy, but feeling guilt around the holidays is new to me. I’ve never associated the holiday season with feelings of guilt in the past, but this year I seem to find self-reproach and criticism around every corner. Aside from my own feelings of condemnation, I’ve noticed quite a few other people, especially my grieving friends and acquaintances, express things like the following….

“I feel bad that…”

  • I can’t afford to buy as many gifts as in the past
  • …I can’t muster up the energy to do this holiday activity or that
  • …I can’t bring myself to carry on a certain tradition
  • …I can’t stop crying
  • I’m feeling too raw to do anything meaningful in honor of my loved one
  • …I don’t want to send holiday cards
  • …I’m not up for the holiday parties
  • …I can’t listen to holiday music
  • …I feel like skipping the holiday season altogether

And the list goes on.

Guilt, shame, self-on-self disappointment – it’s everywhere. As I’ve established, I’m a prime offender so I’m not going to tell you not to feel guilty. It rarely helps to tell a person not to feel guilty. However, because we are often much kinder, patient, and understanding with those we care about than we are with ourselves, I see quite a few reasons why you should probably give yourself a break. So, I’d like to offer you a brief list of reasons why you should go a little bit easier on yourself these next few days.

First, you deserve to cut yourself some slack:

We’ve said it once, we’ll say it a hundred more times – if you’re grieving and still getting out of bed, putting on clothes, showering occasionally, and eating, then you’re doing something.  You have to cope with whatever primary loss you experienced and then all the secondary losses that followed. This is stressful and takes a lot out of you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Second, comparing is silly:

I realize you may be feeling pressured by the ghost of holidays past to be the same as you were before the loss, but it’s really not fair to compare yourself to this person because things have changed. It’s also not fair to compare yourself to other people who are seemingly having a splendid holiday.  First of all, who knows what’s really going on with anyone else regardless of how picture perfect their holiday card appears. Second, many others haven’t faced the same kinds of challenges that you have this year.

Third, you’re not a Grinch simply because you’re not that into it:

As we wrote in our post defending the “holiday villain”:

“I’m sure there are a handful of holiday villains who are truly cold at heart, but more than likely the disheveled woman standing in the corner at the office holiday party is not; nor is the friend who does not want to participate in the Secret Santa Gift Exchange or the child who doesn’t enthusiastically shout-sing Jingle Bells at the holiday recital.  Give these people the benefit of the doubt before you typecast them as bad because there’s a good chance they’re good people who’ve had a bad year.

Fourth, people may not be as disappointed in you as you assume:

As people, we often tell ourselves stories about who we are and how we relate to other people. Sometimes these stories are accurate and sometimes they are based on subjective assumptions.  So, a person may tell themselves things like:  

“I’m no fun, everyone is watching me, I’m not wanted here, this was a pity invite, I’m a third wheel, people are disappointed in me, people don’t care, I have no one, etc” 

Though I’m sure there are times when these things are true, there are also times when these thoughts are exaggerations or manifestations of a person’s internal fears and anxieties.  So, if you find yourself thinking this way, we encourage you to really stop and ask yourself, “What evidence do I have to support this belief? How do I know it’s true?” 

Fifth, there will be another holiday season next year:

Here’s the thing about the holidays – and you can look at this as good news or bad – they happen every year. I know it might not seem this way right now, but you have not sentenced to a life of bad holiday seasons. Sure, the holidays may be different in the future, but different can still be okay or fine or even good.

So please, take this holiday season for what it is – one bad, sad, disappointing holiday season. If you skipped an important tradition and it made you sad, if you skipped the holidays altogether, if you wish you had done more to honor and remember your loved one, or whatever other disappointment or guilty thought your grappling with – remember that next year you can take small steps (or big steps if you prefer) to do things differently.


If you are struggling with the holidays, we want to remind you that we have a free mini-ecourse on managing grief on holidays and special days. If you try this course, I encourage you to pay special attention to the section on holiday values. Holiday values are important because people have a tendency to feel bad about all the ‘what’s’ that have to change after a person’s death, however, if you can focus on the ‘whys’ (the values and meaning behind what you do) you often see that there are still ways to connect with what matters despite everything that has to change.

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December 21, 2018

19 responses on "Guilt and Grief During the Holiday Season"

  1. Its really an informative blog. I feel guilt of not giving gift to my lovely mom on this new year. But as described above I will give some beautiful gift to my mom on next new year.

  2. This was my first holiday season – it does seem like it goes on forever – since my husband of 40+ years died in June. What a journey. I usually look forward to decorating and love looking at the lights on my tree. In fact, today is Jan 6 and my tree is still up. It is comforting to me to look at it. The really hard part has been waking up each day knowing he is gone and that I can no longer visit him in the nursing home, hold hands and just have quiet conversations about what is going on in my life. I really miss that! What has also been very challenging – really difficult – is the absence of people reaching out to me as if the “worst” is over in their eyes. I have a few good listeners in my life but most of my close friends have husbands and maybe kids at home so are full up with holiday stuff. I am checking into a grief support group through the hospice organization that entered my husband’s life at the end. I really just need to hang out with other folks and talk without an overbearing “expert” in the room. Anyone else feel this way? Anyway, today is a new moon in a new year. I hope all of us find peace and happiness in whatever way is meaningful.

    • Yes, that sense that everyone else has moved on, and that they seem to assume that my sorrow is in the past. This has gotten harder for me as time has gone by. My mom passed away just over a year ago, on January 3rd.. Having the holidays happen without her seemed impossible. I’m an only child and my dad left us when I was 3……my mom was amazing and strong and our Christmases we’re the best part of the year.

      I have found just a few friends that I can count on to know that my heart is still filled with sorrow. And I have tried to find ways to protect my heart for the inevitable encounters with all of those who — naturally I suppose — will not have a clue where I’m at.

      I wish you much peace and much kindness on your journey Kathleen.

  3. Kwelch,
    I also lost my 23year old son this year and the holidays were so hard. We decorated and celebrated Christmas this year because I have a daughter and son in law and it would not be fair to them if I did not. I find it hard talking about my son because people start looking like they feel uncomfortable so I usually stop. I don’t like the look people give me . I know it is because they do not know what to say but I find it sad. I find comfort in talking to others that have lost loved ones because I know they understand the pain and the need for their memories to live on.

  4. So appeasing and calming to read all the above heartfelt writings’ I found something I can relate to’ that no one in my family – friend circle can understand or that I can share my grief with … I recently became a widow’ after 44 years of that old fashioned type ‘romantic marriage’ … My beloved husband died of aspiration pneumonia due to last stage Parkinson’s ‘ Our anniversary date is December 22 … I so identify with the guilt’ remorse’ disappointment in myself ‘ so grateful to have found this site’ and not feel abandoned during this time of ” grief tsunami ” …. God’s grace to all ….

  5. This is my 23 y.o. son’s first heavenly Christmas. He died by suicide 12/31/17 and I’m reliving every moment of every day this past month up to his death. I knew soon after he died that the years to come would become a lonely struggle and it has. People forget you had a son and they are able to go on with their lives. I work in a very transient work environment and new staff come and go. You aren’t able to easily talk about your dead child with the same ease and acceptance as you would sharing and comparing everyday things about your living kids. Bring up the dead child and it’s a conversation killer and people just start avoiding you. So my ability to share David with others is very limited.

  6. This is my first Christmas without my beloved dad. Although as I walk around the park and embrace the tree I had planted for him – I ponder on unwell relationships from the past and realise that I have probably always grieved him. Christmas was not for ‘ our family’ it was for spending with mates, and hiding as family was a source of pain. That saddens me now to reflect on that. But I know my dad was the best person he could be. Always. He was kind, and honest and made the most of what he had – he was loyal (often to a fault) and he loved his people and in fact all people. He loved his life and I am coming to accept that his life and death are simply none of my business. Every time I catch myself trying to analyse the whys and the hows and the oh too soons – I remind myself it simply is none of my business. Did I love him – Yes. Did I tell him that every time I could in the way that I could – Yes. OK then there is simply nothing more to be done. But grieve – pure and simple. He was dying at Christmas last year – and that pain was unlike anything I have ever felt nor would I wish it on my worst enemy. My body fell apart and I did not function. Who knew but the wounds are starting to heal. Slowly. I am not doing cartwheels. But there is air going in and out. I am putting one foot in front of the other and I have even caught up on my washing. That is my very own Christmas miracle. I have two kids and they keep me anchored here and now. I allow myself to feel what is and then to move on. Merry Christmas awesome dad. I love you and miss you. xxx Only forever…. xx

  7. I too recently lost my husband, six weeks ago on Thursday. He was my best friend and husband of 32 years and my constant companion. I have to live with the guilt (true or not) that I should have gotten him to see a doctor sooner. He had been diagnosed with a blood cancer and had a bone marrow transplant which had been deemed successful but 13 months later he had the cancer full blown back and too late to do anything. I knew he was in pain and tried to get him in but he just waited until the next oncologist appointment which was a few months off. He was given 5 years or more to live initially and this cut him short at less than two. The guilt and loneliness are unbearable at times and I feel like I am an imposition on those around me since I can’t give up the notion I am at fault. My whole life will be different going forward since I devoted every spare minute to him. I had retired and we were about to start travelling full time when this happened. He was in the hospital for three months and the situation just got worse and worse. I stayed by his side the whole time.

    I have read the comments above and know others are going through the same journey. I appreciate that each one of your has shared your story, it helps.

  8. The holiday season is difficult as I am living with a husband with late-stage Parkinson’s disease. We are alone and cannot do anything. My daughter lives far across the country and husband’s kids live across the state. They do not come to see us Christmas, but they all get together where they live. Pretty depressing to be so alone. His oldest daughter may come down for one night next week. They do not give us gifts (my daughter sent us books, plant and fruitcake), and I saw no reason to decorate. I have been my husband’s caregiver for over 10 years. Life is difficult at this stage–just take one day at a time. I am an only child so have no other relatives

  9. I am so glad to have found this through a post on the Sue Ryder website. I lost my husband suddenly 3 weeks ago and am numb with shock. I have put up a tree and decorated as i am having family for Christmas day and my Mike would have wanted me to but i feel guilty for doing it. It brings no joy. I can’t believe he has gone and i am still having to carry on. I will try to cut myself some slack as i feel my head is going to explode

  10. This is my second holiday without my beloved TJ i miss him always but i no he wants me to live my best life because our life was good together.Being able to move through life with the loss of the people we love can be highly emotional most of the time, but the direction for us all is departure from this world and having the experience of the loss of my partner was new. I will miss him forever and someday people will miss me the same way. Live one moment at a time through your grief, but just keep living.

  11. Great message. My husband died Dec. 20 and our anniversary was Dec. 23. I dread this time of year. But I am also angry at myself as it has been five years. Five years. My goodness, why cant I accept and move on. My brother lives with him as he had been dismissed by his wife six years ago because he has many physical problems. So, we are both in the pits and he is just recovering my yet another surgery and I recently lost my right ear hearing to an infection. Thanks for letting me write this out and God Bless “What’s My Grief” for giving us a forum for airing the truth and being able to share our grief.

    • Helen: Bless you as you stated your wedding anniversary was December 23 and how you don’t feel much joy this time of the year. Well, my anniversary is December 27. This is the second Christmas without my wife of 44 years. I put on a good face for family, but I am pretty much “blah” this time of year despite being around happy grandchildren, etc. Another person in the blog stated that she had quilt that she didn’t make her husband get checked earlier for his developing cancer. Well, I should have been more proactive in my wife’s health. Guilty? Yes. Sentence: Probation and education. One of the most powerful things said to me in answers of why this and why that and I should have and could have was: “If it was meant to be, then it would have been that way.”

  12. This is the second Christmas since my husband died – and yes, in most of England it’s referred to as Christmas, not just
    “the holidays “. The first – I don’t remember because I was numb. The second – I thought I was making some progress and didn’t mind the one day alone.

    But this year? All this crying and sadness is more than I expected. I’ve decorated some branches from the garden with his favourite tree hangings. I appreciate the Christmas cards from friends, most of whom were HIS friends. But I want the day to be over, the shops to return to normal merchandise and the radio stations to play ordinary music. I can hold things together on the day itself but why am I crying now?

  13. This is me! My 2nd Christmas without my oldest son . We raised his son together, he lived next door to me.. I had a falling out with my youngest daughter, who lived with me – she moved out.. I have NO interest in Christmas or any of its trappings, and have been thinking that something is terribly wrong with me.. I will be spending the holidays out of state with my grandson and his wife – my son’s son. On the other hand being “taken care of” and focusing on the true meaning of Christmas is a relief and a blessings. God bless you for reassuring me that what I am experiencing is not unusual. Merry Christmas! Cathy

  14. Thank you for sharing this article. It is so nice to hear that the way I am feeling is normal and that I need to give myself permission to feel this way. I did not put a tree up or decorate this year and plan on spending the holidays quiet at home.

  15. Eleanor and Litsa,
    You wrote an excellent article – so stop feeling guilty 🙂 I’m feeling different this year, my third holiday without my daughter. Better in some ways, yet the intensity of the emotional response to situations has, well, intensified. I appreciate your articles and will once again share on my FB page. Also I am in a closed group for parents like me. Although I am not allowed to share links, so far they haven’t stopped me from sharing the name What’s Your Grief. Always positive responses from those I have shared it with. Thank you. Levi’s Mom.

  16. While this first holiday season without my beloved husband is excruciatingly painful, I am plugging along. I decorated for Xmas and put up a tree, but I couldn’t hang the stockings with his missing or send cheery holiday cards this year. I cry a lot and I miss him so, so much. While the pain is indescribable, I am dealing with the waves as they come and I have a lot of wonderful support. You can never be prepared for how this feels but it is life and we will all go through it.

  17. Wow, this is right where I am this morning! Its amazing that God had me to check my email and read this post. I definitely needed to hear that I can “cut myself some slack” and that the daily activities that are required to be ‘present” in life – getting out of bed, showering (sometimes), putting on clothes and eating (sometimes) is quite a feat during this grief journey. Blessings to you for sharing!

    Jeri

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